Friday, January 30, 2009


Hazy Sun I once worked with a guy who used to say, “Never make a decision about moving in Utah in February.” I think that’s the best living-in-Utah advice I ever heard. Because by February I’m always starting to think about moving.

Winter1Yeah, yeah, snow is pretty and skiing is fun. But it’s cold and icy and gloomy, and nothing’s growing or green and I’m sick of it. I’m ready to say, “Uncle.”

I know it’s temporary. I know that in 60 days it’ll be over, and I’ll be in love with Northern Utah all over again. But right now I just want to feel the sun on my bare arms, catch a breeze that doesn’t sting, hear birds sing and go camping again. So here’s what I’m doing about it:

View E from C Pinacate Tonight after work I’m flying down to Phoenix. My best friend, Arizona Steve, will pick me up at the terminal, and we’ll drive straight out into the Sonoran desert for 2 days & nights of scrambling up and down peaks, and sleeping under the stars.

Then in 2 weeks we- the whole family this time- are headed back down to St. George for a long weekend.

And then in March, we- again, the whole family- are doing something super-cool; we’re going to Central America. And when we get back, it’ll be time for the World to Wake Up again.

The last one- the Central America thing- of course is the Big Adventure, and I’ll blog more about it when we get a little closer. But today, right now, I’m going South, I’m getting warm, and I’m gonna see the sun.

And maybe I’ll see something worth blogging about.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Berry Go Round #13: Winter-Tough

This edition of Berry Go Round is dedicated to Karl Ramjohn and Floyd Lucas, who died at sea earlier this month. Karl and Floyd were the brother and brother-in-law respectively of Ian Ramjohn, a biologist, plant blogger/enthusiast and early supporter of this carnival. Ian, we are sorry for your loss, and wish you and your family the best in this terrible time.

IMG_7907 This month’s Berry Go Round finds us Northerners in the heart of winter, and in this time of year the aspect of plants that strikes me the most is their sheer toughness, durability and longevity, and these aspects are the focus of many of the posts in this month’s edition.

Special Note to Readers Of This Blog Who Are Not Really Into Plants: What? You’re still not into plants? Check out this great video over at LovePlantLife. Nothing technical, no Latin, just cool stuff about plants.

080414-oldest-tree_big Here in the Great Basin, we like to think we hold the proud record for longevity with our Bristlecone Pines, but Dr. A over at The Phytofactor calls our attention to a durable Norway Spruce in Sweden, which at an estimated 9,550 years old (pic left), first trees Wattiezais nearly twice as old our most ancient P. longaeva. Dr. A follows this up by bringing us up to speed on the most ancient tree of all, which 385 million years ago was forming the very first forests.

Cerastium_uniflorum_Caryophyllaceae The toughness of plants is nowhere clearer than on rockglaciers as David shows us at Cryology & Co. His fascinating post features members of diverse genera from Cerastrium (pic left, a weedy genus of the Carnation family) to Huperzia_selago_LycopodiaceaeHuperzia (pic right, a Lycophyte, and close cousin of the clubmosses.) (David’s post also highlights some wonderful lichens. While not strictly plants, lichens are really “plants-plus” with their wonderful symbiosis of fungi and green algae or cyanobacteria, and certainly merit the interest and admiration of plant lovers everywhere.)

IMG_7748 But perhaps the most impressive winter survivors are the Bryophytes, or mosses, whose splashes of green make such wonderful islands of color in winter forests. Jessica at Moss Plants and More provides a great overview of why this is, and just what exactly is going on with moss in the dead of winter.

Back in the Great Basin, Desert Survivor highlights another “tough” plant- and my personal, all-time favorite monocot- the otherworldly Joshua tree, while indulging in that favorite past-time of all us Great Basin residents: The Mojave Winter Getaway! Joshuas plus inversionAnother fascinating aspect of Joshua trees, which I blogged about last May, is that they’re dependent on a single species of pollinator- a monolectic moth. (I love this photo of hers- Joshuas on the ridge with a low-lying inversion in the background; a classic Basin-and-Range-in-Winter shot.) Just yesterday she followed up with this broader-ranging post on the survival strategies of desert plants.

O minutus Plants that survive- like the Joshua tree- by way of a single pollinator are endlessly fascinating, linked to the world of life by a single thread as it were, and Laurent at SeedsAside introduces us to a fascinating example, Epihelle1 NarcoMacaranga tanarius, whose sole pollinator, a vegetarian beetle (pic right), seems to have somehow evolved into its role out of a family of strict predators. But Laurent’s even more amazing pollination post this month concerns the flowers of Epipactis helleborine (pic left), which not only rewards its pollinators, but apparently addicts them to its narcotic nectar!

all life tree If you’re a relative newcomer to the world of plants, and a bit intimidated by all this Latin bouncing around, Sally at Foothills Fancies posts a well-grounded reminder not to take classification (or ourselves) too seriously, lest we get bogged down in the phylogeny and fail to see the … psilophyton cutwell, I guess “forest for the trees” actually works in this case, and focus on enjoying the plants all around us. (I wish Sally had that post up about a year ago, when I dove into botany; it would’ve eased my mind on many late nights spent scratching my head over funny Latin words…) Sally follows this “Big Picture” post up with the wistful tale of the “orphaning” (“marooning”?) of her old college flame, Sphenopsida.

Double Timberline Returning to the toughness of plants, here at Watching the World Wake Up we’ve looked at a couple more Utah trees this past month, Limber Pine and Utah Juniper, and how they deal with our heavy mountain snows and chilling valley inversions here in the Great Basin.

stinkinextinction But lest we get too proud of our tough plants, Gravity’s Rainbow Extinction Thursday series reminds us of wonderful plants we’ve lost, and the many others we’re so close to losing. And the Agricultural Biodiversity Weblog updates us this month on challenges to biodiversity in the growing things we eat from Kenya to Versailles.

dandelion clock Plants in winter are ultimately about enduring time, until they can grow and reproduce and start the cycle anew. And speaking of time, the issue of just how plants tell time is addressed this month over on the fabulous How Plants Work. (Why didn’t someone tell me about this blog when I was getting into plants?) Tons of great stuff here.

That wraps up this month’s edition of Berry Go Round. Thanks to all of you who submitted posts. Be sure to join us again next month for the February edition of this carnival, to be hosted at Gravity’s Rainbow.

Monavie1 Postscript: I actually only had to reject just one submission for this edition, and only because the plant tie-in was just a bit too weak for this carnival. But the subject- those annoying “Acai Berry” spam emails- caught my eye, and the post is fascinating (though long), so I’ve included the link here.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Obsession and the Dark Side of Juniper

Berry-Go-Round Note: If you have a last minute BGR submission, send it today to (I think the submission form routing turned off last night.)

Cedar Mtn Juniper So finally, this weekend, the inversion ended. I realize now that there’s one more aspect of an inversion I forgot to mention in my earlier post: After a few days of it, people start getting cranky. And so in Salt Lake the day or two after an inversion ends, everyone seems to be just a little bit more at ease, a little bit nicer to each other, and a little more relaxed, like they can finally stop holding their breath. Which of course is sort of the case… And the timing’s good, because this is the last of this Inversion-Juniper series of posts, and I’ve been reading, writing and thinking so much about Junipers (pic left = Junipers, Sagebrush & Cheatgrass West of Cedar Mtns) this last week I want to wrap it up before it becomes an obsession.

Tangent: Speaking of obsession…So about a month ago, I mentioned Bird Whisperer’s obsession with sharks. I wrote then that he’d probably continue to be fascinated with sharks for another month or so before dropping the subject completely and moving on to something else. Sure enough, he announced last week (again in the hot tub, where we seem to have so many of these types of discussions) that he was done with sharks. And so the Cycle of Obsession continues…

SLO Sunrise Though I love to roll my eyes at the “Cycle”, I know where he gets it from. It’s not Awesome Wife (pic right at dawn in San Rafael Swell w/Junipers), who is perpetually balanced, steady and even-keeled in her approach to the world; it’s from me. And so when I start on these multi-post series- PLTs, St. George Botany, Great Basin Hydrology, Weeds, Moose, Hybrid Oaks, Dandelions- I always have to be careful not to spiral into topical obsession.

So what’s Bird Whisperer’s new obsession, you ask? He’s back to dinosaurs. Over the past 2-3 years, in between obsessions, he returns to obsessing about dinosaurs for about a month or two before shooting off on the next obsession. (“Dad, what’s your favorite Jurassic carnivore?”) Dinosaurs are like his baseline, his foundation layer, from where he pauses, reorients himself, and sets his sights anew.

So after going on and marveling about the toughness, architecture, distribution and amazing evolutionary path of Juniper, I want to talk about its darker side in the American West: its role in the destruction of the Intermountain grasslands.

clear_cut_forest It seems like in these days of climate doom-and-gloom, there’s bad news for trees at every turn: clear-cutting of the Amazon basin, destruction of old-growth Redwoods, fungal attacks on Elms, devastation of Hemlocks by exotic insects, and the near-complete replacement of native forests from Scandinavia to the American Southeast with monoculture plantation/wood factories. But this isn’t the story of Utah Juniper- or its cousins, the closely-related Western Juniper, J. occidentalis, Oneseed Juniper, J. monosperma, and Rocky Mountain Juniper, J. monticola- at all. Junipers in the West are expanding their range, and have been doing so consistently for about a century.

For a lot of posts I come up with goofy graphics to illustrate points, but for this post I don’t have to. Spaced through this post are 3 pairs of photos, each with a “before” shot on the left, and an “after” on the right. In each case you can easily see the significant increase in Juniper.

Enchanted Mesa cut The expansion of range has been dramatic. In Eastern Oregon it’s estimated that Western Juniper now covers 5 times the area it did at the time of European settlement. As Junipers increase their range, they’re also increasing their density, changing their habitat from open, grassy savannah to a largely closed canopy, which in turn largely shuts out shade-intolerant native grasses, such as Indian Rice Grass.

The 2 factors at work are overgrazing and fire suppression. Pre-settlement, dense native grasses prevented Juniper seedlings from gaining a toehold in many areas, particularly areas with better soil, favorable to grasses. And every 30-70 years or so, the grasslands burned, taking many/any young Junipers with them. As a result, Junipers tended to do better on or around rocky hills and outcrops, where there wasn’t such stiff competition from grasses, and where the lower density of such grasses mitigated the intensity of fires.

Wind River cut Tangent: Without fire control, the frequency of natural fires is far greater in such areas today, and the reason is Cheatgrass, Bromus tectorum,(pic right, West of Cedar Mtns) Cedar Mtn Cheatgrassthe exotic wild grass I mentioned in the previous post. Cheatgrass does its growing earlier than native grasses, and by June is already brown and dry, creating a dangerous summer-long fuel-load not produced by native grasses.

Within 10-15 years of settlement, Great Basin grass cover had been sharply reduced, and the composition of such grasslands shifted dramatically from grasses to shrubs, such as Sagebrush.

Tangent: Sagebrush produces chemicals called terpenoids that make its foliage largely unpalatable to domestic livestock, which enables it to replace grasses in overgrazed areas. For more about terpenoids and Sagebrush, see this post.

Juniper seedlings are much better able to get a decent start in the spaces between shrubs than on grass-covered soil, and soon were able to start growing in areas from which they’d been barred for millennia. A century or so of fire suppression has allowed the seedlings to grow into adulthood for between 3 and 4 Juniper-generations (each =~30 years), facilitating the change you see in the photo-pairs.

Tensleep cut When I first heard of the phenomenon of Juniper “Invasion”, I thought, “So what?” Other than ranchers, who cares? Juniper and Piñon-Juniper woodlands are some of the most pleasant places (and best campsites) in the Intermountain West, with their combination of shade and open-ness. If the “invasion” means more shade and a few less places for cattle to trash, isn’t that a good thing?

But the expansion of Juniper is really part of a bigger story: the destruction of the Intermountain grasslands. Years ago, before I was even interested in plants, I read a factoid that has stuck with me for almost 2 decades: prior to European settlement, ¾ of the Great Basin was grassland. Not just shrubs, but grass, native grasses like Galleta Grass, Pleuraphis rigida and Indian Rice Grass, Oryzopsis hymenoides, grasses that stay green into early summer (unlike Cheatgrass.) Think about that, and think of what it would be like to drive across Nevada in May, if basin after basin were covered with carpets of green grasses. Even for a tree-lover like me, that’s a vision so sweet it has to make your heart ache just a little.

IM grasslandThe loss of grasslands is a loss to bird-lovers as well. As the canopy closes overhead, ground-nesters like the Western Meadowlark are displaced in favor of tree-nesters: Jays, Solitaires, Bushtits, Mourning Doves. (The Western Meadowlark is my absolute favorite bird. In the dark and cold of winter I long to hear its song again, the prettiest sound in Utah, ever.)

Smoky Valley Sunrise To be sure, Junipers are just a small part of the destruction; overgrazing, exotic species and fire suppression are the real villains. But I can’t help but feel that the more I learn about the natural world, the more it seems like every change involves a loss of some sort. What I can’t tell is whether it seems that way because I understand things better, or because I’m getting older.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Juniper, Martinis, and the Parallel Evolution of Fruit

IMG_7885 So my recent run out to the West Desert has left me with Junipers on the brain. Over the past year I’ve blogged about them once or twice, usually out of admiration for their toughness, their durability, and some of the structural reasons for behind them (which I talked about in this post.) But the more I get to know and learn about Juniper, the more I realize how much I’ve taken it for granted in the 13+ years I’ve lived here.

osteosperma1 range Utah Juniper (range map, right) is the most common, widespread tree in Utah. I always find it ironic that the state tree is Colorado Blue Spruce, when you generally have to go looking for wild-growing Blue Spruce in Utah. Utah Juniper, on the other hand, is everywhere. With the possible exception of I-80 between Knoll and Wendover, I can’t think of a place in Utah where you can drive 30 miles in any direction without passing it, and even flying over the state on a clear day, there’s no point at which you can’t pick some out looking out the window.

JuniperWhat’s interesting is that in spite of this ubiquity, Juniper is way different from just about all other conifers in Utah. All of the other Utah conifers we’ve looked at- Spruce, Piñon, Fir, Douglas Fir and all the Pines, are members of Pinaceae, the Pine Family, and as such, they’re all kind of Piney-Looking. But Juniper is not a member of Pinaceae, and hasn’t shared an ancestor with any of them in somewhere around 200 million years.

In North America, when we think of conifers, we think of a member of Pinaceae, because that’s what we’re surrounded with. But Pinaceae is only 1 of 8 conifer families in the world. Only 3 of those 8 are found here in “Northern” (US + Canada) North America. Besides Pinaceae, one other is Taxadaceae, or the Yew family, which we don’t get anywhere near Utah, and the other is the family to which Juniper belongs, Cupressaceae.

In previous posts I’ve mentioned how different families of conifers stick to different parts of the world, such as Pinaceae in the Northern hemisphere, and Araucariaceae in the Southern. Of the 8 families, only Cupressaceae spans the globe, occurring naturally on every continent except Antarctica.

RM Juniper Here in Utah, the only Cupressaceae are Junipers, of which we have 3 species. Besides Utah Juniper, the other tree species is Rocky Mountain Juniper, Juniperus scopulorum, (pic right) which requires more moisture and occurs higher up. In the Wasatch you see a lot of it on South-facing slopes. (The pipeline trail in Mill Creek Canyon goes by several nice examples.) Rocky Mountain Juniper looks more “stand-up” in shape than Utah Juniper, with more of a “pointy-top” form to it. The 2 species can occur together and sometimes hybridize.

communis The 3rd species is Dwarf Juniper, J. communis var. jackii, which is a shrub, not a tree, and the distinctive feature of this guy (in addition to being strictly shrubby) is that the leaves are needle-like, not scale-like, as with the other 2 Junipers.

Tangent: Actually, the 2 “tree” junipers also have needle-like leaves, but only in their juvenile stage. As they grow into real trees, the leaves become scale-like. So how do you tell Dwarf Juniper from a juvenile of one of the other two species? One good way is berries. Junipers don’t become sexually active and bear berries until they’re about 30 years old (which is coincidentally the exact same age at which I have authorized my children to become sexually active) and so if you find a shrubby Juniper with needle-like leaves and berries, it is most certainly Dwarf Juniper.

But not far from Utah, Cupressaceae occur in many forms, and comprise true trees of the high mountain forests. IMG_5872 When we visited California last summer, many of the trees we looked at, including Incense Cedar, Giant Sequoia and Coast Redwood, (pic right w/Awesome Wife for scale) are all Cupressaceae. The cypresses we checked out by Mendocino are another good example, and even much further inland, up in the Idaho panhandle around Coeur d’Alene, the forests include Western Red Cedar, Thuja plicata. All of these trees, with the exception of Coast Redwood, bear distinctive scale-like leaves and papery bark that make them appear immediately “Juniper-ish” to a Utahn.

But the coolest, most remarkable thing about Junipers is that they’ve pulled off an evolutionary trick that no other Utah conifer- and no other Pinaceae member- has managed: they’ve evolved fruit.

IMG_7888 Now before any botany-savvy reader gags, I know that a Juniper berry is not a true berry, and that anatomically it is not a fruit. But functionally, it really is a fruit, as I’ll make the case in a moment.

Throughout this blog I’ve paid a lot of attention to mechanisms of pollination and seed dispersal, categorizing plants for example as “Wind-Wind” (Maple) or “Wind-Agent” (Oak) or “Agent-Wind” (Dandelion.) And now it’s worth taking a closer look at “Agent” seed dispersal.

Broadly speaking, there are 2 strategies plants use for enlisting an agent to disperse their seeds. The first is the “Sticker” strategy. If you’ve ever returned home from a hike or mtn bike ride with a thistle stuck to your lycra or shoe, you know how this works: An animal- like you- brushes against the plant, seeds stick to the animal, and get transported some distance before falling or being picked off.

invasion_cheatgrass Tangent: The champion “Sticker” around here has got to be Cheatgrass, Bromus tectorum, a Eurasian exotic that has-regrettably- overrun the West since its introduction to North America in the late 1800’s, and now occurs in all 50 states. All desert hikers have spent countless post-hike hours picking Cheatgrass seeds out of socks.


The second is the “Eat-Me” Strategy, which induces the agent to disperse seeds by producing an appealing (and often highly nutritious) food item. Broadly speaking, there are 2 variants of “Eat-Me”: Nut and Fruit.

IMG_6630 Eat-Me/Nut works like this: “I’ll make my seeds big, edible and delicious so that you’ll collect and eat them. But you’ll neglect, forget, or not need to eat, all of them, and some of those uneaten seeds that you disperse or cache will make new plants.” The angiosperms have developed countless examples of nuts, from pecans to brazil nuts, and probably the best example in Utah is acorns. (For all kinds of info about acorns, including an Acorn-Jelly-Action-Video, see this post.)

But Eat-Me/Fruit takes a different, more sophisticated approach in that it doesn’t make the seed itself into a food. Instead it says: “I’ll surround my seeds in a delicious, nutritious food substance which will induce you to distribute my seeds, either by discarding or passing (i.e. pooping) them.” The evolution of fruit is remarkable feat, and angiosperms have done it in thousands of different forms- peaches, oranges, apples, olives, etc. The best wild example here in the Wasatch is probably Utah Serviceberry, Amelanchier utahensis, which grows all over the place. In late August you can see purple, serviceberry-laden animal scat all over the trails in Park City and Pinebrook.

Seed DispersalIMG_5966Side Note: In September, purple Serviceberry-scat was everywhere, and I can remember thinking, “I should take a pic of this…”. But then I thought, “Aw, when am I ever going to use a photo of poop in the blog?” Well, now I wish I had it. As a consolation, here’s a photo of Serviceberry in full bloom (foreground) in late June. Location = “Finesse” trail, up above Pinebrook.

fruit diagram4 A fruit is the metamorphic end-product of a fertilized flower. The fertilized ovules become seeds, while the ovary develops into the flesh of the fruit. So when you’re eating an apple, you’re actually easting an apple tree ovary. Ovary-fruit is strictly an angiosperm accomplishment; no conifer- or any gymnosperm- has come up with it. Which brings us back to Juniper.

Tangent: Botany-savvy readers will know that this Fruit/Nut distinction is an oversimplification. Specifically it leaves out achenes. Achenes are anatomically fruits, with a flesh or husk made of seed-ovary, that contain a seed inside. Achenes can be wind or agent-dispersed. Mountain Mahogany achenes are a good example of the wind-dispered kind, while sunflower “seeds” would be an excellent example of an agent-dispersed achene; the “shell” is anatomically a fruit, and the edible part inside a true seed. But from a seed-dispersal strategy perspective, plants that produces agent-dispersed achenes generally follow the Nut Strategy, as the seed is consumed (and not passed.)

dandelion achene My absolutely favorite achenes are Dandelion “seeds”, which are dispersed by wind and agents, where agents include House Finches, children and lawnmowers. (Back in the old days, when no one read this blog, I did a really cool series on Dandelion structure, genetics, distribution and natural history, which started with this post.)

Conifers of course have long utilized the Nut Strategy, as we’ve seen this past year with pretty much all the Wasatch PLTs. (Examples include Red Squirrels and White Fir, and Corvids and Limber Pine.) But Juniper, completely separate from angiosperms, has independently evolved the Fruit Strategy. Utah Juniper berries, which contain 1 or 2 seeds are eaten by many fruiting-eating birds, including the American Robin, Turdus migratorius, and Townsend’s Solitaire, Myadestes townsendi, as well mammals, most notably Jackrabbits (genus = Lepus, various species.)

EatMe Fruit Strategy These animals pass the undigested seeds through their digestive tracts and poop them out, often at considerable distance from the parent tree. Studies of Juniper seeds gathered from Jackrabbit fecal pellets show that eaten/pooped seeds germinate more easily than un-eaten seeds.

tsolitaire Tangent: Townsend’s Solitaire is as to Junipers as Pinyon Jays are to Piñons. Outside of breeding season it lives almost exclusively on Juniper berries. During breeding season it amps up its diet with insects as well.

The “fruit-flesh” of the Juniper berry isn’t an ovary- it’s the cone itself. After fertilization (via wind) female seed cones begin a second growth phase. The scales resume growing, merge into one another, become soft and fleshy, surrounding the seed(s) with an effective “berry”.

Part About Martinis

Tangent: Human have and do utilize Juniper berries as well. Paiute Indians ate them in various forms, and Juniper berries are today used as the flavoring agent in gin.

martini Nested Tangent: Here’s a cool little factoid about me: I make the Best Martini Ever. This sounds like bragging, but it is simply a fact. I am an insufferable martini snob, to the point where I almost never order a martini in a bar or restaurant (and certainly never here in Utah) and drink only those prepared by myself, or close, trusted friends whose martini-making skills I know and respect, most notably Arizona-Steve and Paramedic-Michael.

The berries used in gin are from the European Common Juniper, Juniperus communis var. communis. I don’t know if anyone’s tried making gin with berries from Utah Juniper.

IMG_7886 What I love about Juniper is that it’s a great example of how evolution can reliably produce really complex, sophisticated mechanisms, like fruit. I say reliably because the same mechanism has evolved independently multiple times, even though it seems so darned unlikely and difficult. And what’s more, the living world is filled with examples just like this, of evolution reliably, repeatedly, coming up with really complicated stuff that works beautifully, and doing so over and over again. (My favorite example so far: C4 photosynthesis in plants, which we looked at when we checked out Crabgrass last Spring.) So don’t be put off by those who discount evolution as “just a theory”; it works, it delivers the goods over and over again, and you can be reminded of its power, wonder and utter coolness every time you bike, hike or drive past a stand of Utah Juniper.

pdod berry1 PS-Note: I picked Junipers to talk about the parallel evolution of fruit because they’re an example here in Utah. But I’d be remiss if I wrapped up without mentioning the wonderful Podocarps, of the family Podocarpaceae. podocarp2This amazing family of conifers has evolved all sorts of wonderful fruit-like cones in a variety of shapes and colors. Alas, the fabulous Podocarps stick mainly to the Southern hemisphere, getting no closer to Utah than lower Central America.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

West Desert Biking, Inversions and Piñon-Juniper Woodland

IMG_7869 OK, so no now that we know all about inversions, back to the biking part. The ride I had my eye on all last week for Saturday didn’t pan out. I had hopes of doing the Cedar Mountain loop, but around Thursday realized that the melt wasn’t happening fast enough. So I changed plans and rode Stansbury Island, then zipped out to the Aragonite exit off I-80 and did a quick out & back to the top of Hastings Pass.

But I’ve done the whole Cedar Mountain Loop a couple of times before, and it’s one of my favorite inversion rides. The Cedar Mountains are the 3rd range West of Salt Lake Valley, and the last range before the Salt Flats and Nevada. They’re a low range, topping out at about ~7,700 feet. The loop isn’t really a “mountain bike ride”, so much as it is a road ride you do on a mountain bike. The 56 mile loop follows graded dirt roads up over the range via Hastings Pass, then follows the East side of the range down to Rydalch Pass, where it crosses to the West side and then heads North back up to the start.

Cedar Mountain Loop Captions I’ve ridden it before during an inversion, and it made for a fascinating meteorological show & tell. The long stretches down the East flank and back up the West side were full-on winter, riding bundled up, with temps in the mid-20’sF. But the two passes were bright, sunny and spring-like, pushing 40F.

Practically speaking, this is the kind of ride worth doing maybe once a year, when there are no other good riding options, you have a free day, and you want to spend it out in the middle of nowhere. So it usually gets ridden (if at all) on clear winter or early spring days. But this is the dangerous part; the soils and roads are clay, and if there’s still moisture in the soil- from snow or frost- and the temps climb above freezing while you’re out there, you’re stuck. You cannot turn a wheel in this mud, and if you get stuck you’re looking at a long wait- probably till 10PM or so, when the mud re-freezes.

WARNING: Don’t attempt either of these rides now, unless your timing allows you to do the whole ride while it’s frozen.

IMG_7873 So at dawn I was climbing up the frozen Stansbury Island trail, which though not as remote as the Cedar Mountains, is singletrack that follows the old Lake Bonneville shoreline at about 5,000 feet, right along the top of the inversion layer. I got back to the truck before 10AM, and things were still frozen, so I headed further West, out to the Cedars, thinking to get a quick climb free and clear above the inversion.

Tangent: Here’s another cool thing to do on Stansbury Island that almost no one ever does: Hike. Not the trail- that’s boring. Go for the peaks instead. When you drive onto the island toward the bike trail head, park your car either at the T/H, or at the junction of the main West-side road and the T/H access road. Walk up the main West-side road about another mile, and there’ll be a road veering off 45 degrees to the right/Northeast. Follow it for a couple hundred yards; it ends in a dirt lot. Climb the hill in front of you and start working your way up the side ridge to the main ridge. Once on the main ridge, work your way North the peak. It’s easy.

Stansbury Route Map Captions If the directions don’t make sense, just follow my Standard Great Basin Peak Ascent Methodology, which I described in this post. (Man, it’s like I have a post for everything…)

Climbing the Northern peak, which is lower but looks more dramatic, takes a bit more effort. Getting down into the Juniper woodland between the peaks is easy, but finding your way up the Northern peak involves negotiating a series of cliff-bands that can be a bit hazardous if you’re alone. Anyway, first/ Southern/ highest peak is great and easy, second/ Northern peak a bit more involved.

IMG_7884 The Cedar range is unspectacular and typical of about 100+ ranges across the Great Basin, in that it doesn’t reach high enough to support real forest, only Juniper woodland. Through the entire range there’s just one tree, Utah Juniper, Juniperus osteosperma, and this same tree is the only tree on Stansbury Island, and the only tree in the nearby Grassy Mountains. It’s the only tree in the Newfoundland Mountains, the only tree in the Lakeside Mountains, and… you get the idea. Utah Juniper tolerates the lowest, driest conditions of any tree in the Great Basin, and that’s why it’s always the first tree you encounter as you climb out of a basin. In many other Great Basin ranges it coexists with Singleleaf Piñon, Pinus monophylla, and together they form Pinon-Juniper Woodland. (For background info on Singleleaf Piñon- a super-cool tree- see the “Botanical Spotlight” in this post.)

If you drive across Nevada in I-80 or US50, you’ll see the same thing over and over and over again: flat basin filled with shrubs, then the land starts to rise, then Junipers start to appear. Depending on how high the range/ridge rises, there may then appear Piñons or even other, “real” trees higher up, but when you go back down the other side, the same thing will happen in reverse: eventually the Junipers will peter out, and then not long after, you’ll reach the bottom of the slope and the “floor” of the next basin.

PJ Belt Basic When I first drove across the Great Basin, almost 20 years ago, I assumed the Junipers just didn’t grow on the valley floors because not enough rainfall reached them. But it turns out that their lower distribution is limited by another factor as well: thermal inversions.

Along the Wasatch Front, we tend to think of inversions as a local thing, but people who live out in the middle of the Basin, in places like Elko or Austin or Ely (people like this lady) know that inversions happen routinely all over the Great Basin, clear to the Sierra. Across the Basin, Piñon-Juniper woodlands occur on hundreds of ranges. And on almost all of them, the lower limit of Juniper coincides with the upper limit of the winter-time thermal inversions.

PJ Belt Thermal IMG_7889Utah Juniper is tough tree. We looked at its wood architecture, and specifically its reinforced xylem, last Spring in the Newfoundland Mountains. It also has other tricks to defend itself against drought and freezing, including small, scale-like needles, and the ability to selectively kill off limbs in times of stress. But the temperature difference between the inversion layer and just above it can often be 10-15F degrees, and this difference seems to spell the limit even for this tough tree.

IMG_7883The inversions have influenced life in other ways. Archeologists have found that Paiute encampments almost always stuck to the Piñon-Juniper belt, and rarely find evidence for them in valley bottoms. One good reason for this would be access to the Great Basin’s most predictable, reliable, high fat & carbohydrate food source: Piñon nuts. But when your whole life is basically one long camp-out, in an age before down sleeping bags and gore-tex, a 10-15F gain in wintertime temperature was probably another factor in campsite selection.

A little ways North of the Humboldt River (rough path of I-80) the thermal inversion pattern of the central Great Basin is disrupted by storm tracks coming in from the Northwest. These storms aren’t blocked by any “wall” as formidable as the Sierra, and so extended thermal inversions are rare here. And in fact, North of the Humboldt is where the Piñon-Juniper belts effectively end, with Piñon just barely making it to the Idaho line.

Many Great Basin ranges don’t have any trees except Juniper or Piñon and Juniper, and when the ranges reach high enough, this can create an artificially low “timberline” of around 8,000 or so feet, above which is too cold to support Piñon. But interestingly, 8,000 feet is often too low (not enough precip) to support the 3rd-most common Great Basin Conifer- our old friend Limber Pine. So on many ranges, a Limber Pine or Limber Pine/Bristlecone Pine forest will kick in 1,000 or more feet above the Piñon-Juniper “timberline”.

This oddity leads to ranges like the Monitor Range (which we skirted between Austin and Eureka on our Tahoe/Hydrology road trip last summer) which actually has two timberlines: a Piñon-Juniper timberline at ~8,000 feet, and a 2nd, higher, Limber Pine timberline at ~11,000 feet.

Double Timberline IMG_7893 For my second ride- the quickie- I parked at the junction 1.3 miles East of the Aragonite incinerator, at about 4,900 ft. I was still thick in the haze and gloom (pic left.) I unloaded the bike and started pedaling East and up, following the road towards Hastings Pass. After about a mile, the haze started to thin, the world began to get lighter, and as if on cue, Junipers started to appear on either side of the road. I followed the road for another couple hundred yards up into the mouth of a canyon, around a bend, and as I did so the haze lifted completely and I broke out of the inversion.

Hastinf View W Breaking out of an inversion is a joy no matter how you do it- car, airplane, whatever. But to break out of an inversion under your own power, while breathing hard, is one of the sweetest pleasures of a Great Basin Winter. The very air around you changes, and over the course of a couple of minutes, the world becomes brighter and clearer, and a deep chill you’d forgotten was all around and through you is suddenly removed, like a weight lifting. Your lungs quickly feel deeper, clearer and stronger. Your vision seems sharper, crisper than you ever imagined it could or even should be. It’s like entering another world, or even becoming another person.

View E from Hastings At the pass I lingered longer than I should have, loath to abandon the clarity, sunshine and warmth for another week of hazy gloom. But eventually the math of distance, mph and a committed time of return intruded on my reverie, and I turned the bike around and began the descent back toward Aragonite.

IMG_7895 Descending fast into an inversion never ceases to startle and even intimidate me. You know what’s coming- the murky haze, the lower temps. But somehow I’m just never ready for the sheer impact of an inversion chill at 30mph. It immediately envelopes, penetrates, and almost grabs a hold of the very frame of your body. It’s a grip that can’t be blocked or shaken or ignored. It simply has to be endured, until the next brief escape, or eventual, long-awaited storm front.